Denver Debates Hosting a Massive Coachella-Like Music Fest on Public Land

Overland Park Neighborhood Association secretary Terry Pasqua listens to a presentation about a music festival that would be held on the Overland Park Golf Course.
Overland Park Neighborhood Association secretary Terry Pasqua listens to a presentation about a music festival that would be held on the Overland Park Golf Course. Kyle Harris
Overland Park neighborhood activists and local music-industry leaders are expressing concern over a proposed music festival backed by the city, Anschutz Entertainment Group and Superfly.

The entertainment giants and the city floated the multimillion-dollar music festival they want to throw on the Overland Park Golf Course, the oldest course in the state, past neighbors at a meeting on Monday, January 30. The project would turn public land into a major moneymaker.

At the meeting, which was held at the Overland Bar and Grill in the course's clubhouse, representatives of Mayor Michael Hancock's administration said that the festival would bring an estimated $1 million to $2.5 million to the city and, if all goes as planned, much more to the corporations that say they will donate some of the revenue to local nonprofits.

Fred Weiss, director of finance for Denver Parks and Recreation, said that some revenue generated from the project would land back in the Overland Park neighborhood and the golf course, though he admitted it wasn't a guarantee; if Hancock runs for a third term (he's currently raising money), he would likely face opposition, and another mayor might use the potential music-festival revenue differently.

First-term councilman Jolon Clark, a parks advocate, pledged at the meeting that he will fight for that revenue to stay in his district. But it's uncertain that he'll keep his seat, which he won in a heated run-off election.
click to enlarge Councilman Jolon Clark addresses questions from the golf community. - KYLE HARRIS
Councilman Jolon Clark addresses questions from the golf community.
Kyle Harris
While this project is news to the public, the festival has been in the works for roughly half a decade, says local music-industry legend Chuck Morris, CEO of AEG Live Rocky Mountains, a company nested within billionaire conservative Phil Anschutz's entertainment empire. Morris told Westword over the phone that he has been laboring over the project behind closed doors since 2010, the year AEG's Mile High Music Fest, held at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, shut down after three years for not turning a large enough profit.

Morris says the Great Recession might have impeded the festival's success. But the economy has since bounced back. By 2011, the city had become a choice destination for rich millennials, who are entrepreneurs by day and culture and music junkies by night. Morris and his colleagues see potential — not just in run-of-the-mill stadium concerts, but in creating a festival experience with multiple stages and a bevy of musical acts, akin to Coachella, if slightly smaller, at least in the beginning.

Morris says the Colorado festival is far from guaranteed to happen at the Overland Park Golf Course or even in Denver, which is where his company is headquartered. "The investment of festivals is an absolute bloody fortune, and we've just got to be sure," Morris says. "We're in the phase of looking at all options." He didn't say what other cities are under consideration.

Both Morris and his consultant on the project, David Ehrlich, pledge that they will not foist the music festival upon any community that does not want it. Ehrlich is participating in community meetings, and his involvement has impressed the leadership of the Overland Park Neighborhood Association over the past few weeks, said secretary Terry Pasqua at the meeting.
click to enlarge Golfers debate the music festival at the Overland Bar and Grill. - KYLE HARRIS
Golfers debate the music festival at the Overland Bar and Grill.
Kyle Harris
Attendees at that January 30 meeting seemed split over whether they should sacrifice peace, quiet and time on the fairways for the festival. Some members of the Overland Park Neighborhood Association, like Pasqua, said they support the festival because of the economic benefits the city says the project will bring. Other neighborhood activists oppose it. Neighborhood activist Helene Orr and Joanne Weiss, leaders of the neighborhood organization back when it won a multi-year campaign to clean up toxic waste from the Shattuck Chemical Company, said the association's new leadership is riding roughshod over the community's interests and selling out public lands to the highest bidder — a dangerous precedent for the city to set, Orr added.

Ehrlich opened his presentation at the clubhouse by reassuring the golfers that "this is not a done deal by any stretch. We will not do this festival here if the community doesn't want it," a message he repeated throughout the night.
click to enlarge David Ehrlich of AEG addresses the golf community. - KYLE HARRIS
David Ehrlich of AEG addresses the golf community.
Kyle Harris
While he said he cares about the opinions of surrounding neighbors, "the golfers, in particular, have the most to worry about," since they will lose access to their course for five weeks.

He built a case that AEG's New Orlean's Jazz and Heritage Festival and Superfly's Outside Lands festival, which takes place in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, prove that the company has a track record of benefiting the communities surrounding its festivals. But Ehrlich didn't mention the litany of complaints surrounding both festivals over noise, litter and safety (these, these and these). Gripes span the gamut, from too much litter to too much noise, and worries about safety.

"We will leave the space as good or better than when we got there," he said.

The festival would take place over one weekend in mid-September and end by 10 p.m. each night. The golf course would be closed for five weeks to allow for setup and cleanup. During that time, the city would offers golfers incentives to play at other courses, said the city's director of golf, Scott Rethlake, though the particulars of the incentives haven't been hashed out yet.

click to enlarge AEG and Superfly make big promises about the economic benefits of a potential music festival. - KYLE HARRIS
AEG and Superfly make big promises about the economic benefits of a potential music festival.
Kyle Harris
Concerns from the roughly forty people who attended the meeting included the impact that 50,000 people plus stages and trucks would have on the golf course; noise, trash and safety issues; the revenue the city would make off the project; and the use of public land for private gain. In response to the safety concerns, Ehrlich said that each festival-goer would be given a wristband with a chip that would allow organizers to track where crowds were gathering.

The Overland Golf Course is within eyeshot of a soon-to-open 7,500-seat amphitheater, run by Levitt Pavilion Denver, a nonprofit that champions local and independent musicians and offers free concerts. But AEG and Superfly haven't approached Levitt, because the venue's 7,500 seats wouldn't be enough for the music festival, said Levitt executive director Chris Zacher after the meeting.

Zacher grumbled that AEG hadn't shown interest in the Overland Park community or his music venue until the company could find a way to exploit it for profit. "AEG gave Levitt zero dollars" in the half a decade that the project has been raising money, he noted.

He's also concerned that people who live in the neighborhood would never be able to afford tickets, and even if they could, purchasing them for such a festival is virtually impossible because they sell out so fast. He compared that model to Levitt's, which will offer fifty free concerts a year and books local musicians.

Zacher further stated that AEG is great at business but doesn't build a sustainable music scene because it undercuts the local market and gobbles up small venues. Chase Wessel, production director and talent buyer at Levitt, described AEG as a "bully" after the meeting.

click to enlarge There was no opportunity for comment at Monday's meeting between the city, the music promoters, and the golfing community. - KYLE HARRIS
There was no opportunity for comment at Monday's meeting between the city, the music promoters, and the golfing community.
Kyle Harris
Orr was upset that public land would be used for private gain. "'Public' has no meaning for them," she said of the Hancock administration. She and a group of concerned neighbors have started a petition on and have taken to TV outlets to decry the project.

Pasqua said that the notion that the golf course is public is overblown; she lives across from a "No Trespassing" sign on a fence that shuts out the public from the golf course. The festival, she said, would give her access to a city-owned property that she doesn't feel a part of.

The rift between neighborhood organizers appeared to be deepening on Monday night. Orr said she's already taking heat for her activism and has been called "divisive," "not neutral" and "undermining." But somebody has to question what's happening, she insisted, because nobody in the community actually knows what's going on. "There hasn't been any dialogue," she said. She speculated that the project is a done deal, though AEG and the city say a contract has not been drafted and that they are seeking community consensus. Critics say they want the issue to go to a vote on the ballot; Ehrlich and Councilman Clark argued that that would cost too much. "Representative democracy is a messy thing," noted Clark.

In a Tuesday, January 31, e-mail to Westword, Orr wrote that she and other neighborhood activists had filed Colorado Open Records Act requests for documents regarding the contract that they believe already exist between the city, AEG and Superfly.

"I'm really troubled by the use — and misuse — of public land by a multimillion-dollar production company," she said, adding that she worries about the precedent the project would establish for other Denver parks. "I think it's going to be a nightmare."

The city, AEG and Superfly will present plans for the proposed music festival to the broader Overland Park community at 6 p.m. tonight, February 1, at Schmitt Elementary School, 1820 South Vallejo Street.

Correction: This story stated the Levitt Pavilion capacity was 20,000. It is actually closer to 7,500.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris